Post #35 – Exposition, My Old Nemesis

8/23/18

Like any new writer (and maybe any old writer?), I regularly fall prey to the exposition trap, or info dump. I feel I need to set the stage, so I end up writing paragraph after paragraph, if not page after page, of backstory. My first flash fiction piece was 1000 words of exposition.

Not surprisingly, editors haven’t accepted my stories containing lots of exposition. Benjamin Kinney, an editor at Escape Pod, always provides me with one or two sentences of critique when rejected a story. For two such stories, the critique focused on too much exposition bogging the story down.

When I reviewed those stories again, he wasn’t wrong. One began with four pages of exposition, the other a modest two. I revised this latter story to spread out the exposition. A little at the beginning, a little in the next scene, and then the remainder in a third scene. And the story is better for it.

The story with four pages of exposition is more of a hard sci-fi story, and I’m struggle with how to avoid the info dump. Then I saw this article published by Writers Digest.

First, I’m pleased that others recognize how difficult it is to avoid the info dump in sci-fi. When a writer cannot assume a reader knows certain things about a setting or even a people, more exposition is needed for a reader to understand the where, when, how, and who of a story. That’s the problem faced when writing sci-fi. The story often doesn’t take place in the here and now with the usual suspects. It takes place in the future, on a planet in a distant solar system, inhabited by four-armed aliens.

Second, page after page of exposition used to be the norm. I recall many classic sci-fi stories written this way. I remember entire chapters of exposition, and that didn’t bother me. Apparently, that’s not what readers (or is it just the editors?) want to see now. Readers are writers’ customers. If we don’t satisfy our customers, we don’t get published. So now we writers must be more sophisticated with our exposition.

Remember the flash fiction piece I mentioned above that was all exposition? One beta reader pointed out that issue and suggested I expand the story by telling it from the viewpoint of the antagonist, who was mentioned only in passing. That’s what I did, and I’m pleased with where the story went. I even added to that story, which is part of the novella I planned to submit to Tor earlier this month.  Alas, as noted in Post #34, I didn’t quite nail down the ending to that expanded story; so it remains a work in progress.  Once I do, I believe I’ll have a better novella ready for submission somewhere.

I also began revising the story with four pages of exposition.  I took the paragraphs in those pages and spread them, one or two at a time, throughout other scenes.  I haven’t yet cleaned up the flow of those paragraphs.  Right now they read like someone picked them up from elsewhere and dropped them wherever they landed, which is mostly true.  It’s on my to do list, and once again I believe the story will be better for it.

I have a plan for the next time I write a piece with an intricate backstory or complex setting or characters.  I’ll write out the exposition but keep it to the side.  Then, as I draft the story, I’ll drop in pieces of that exposition as I go.  I did something similar when drafting the sequel to the story with four pages of exposition.  Since I already knew the backstory, I could easily insert that in nuggets as I went along drafting the new story.  This technique made writing the sequel much easier.  I hope the same holds true when drafting a completely new piece.

Let me know in the comments if you’ve struggled with how to handle exposition and how you mastered it (or still are working to master it).

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Post #34 -Novella Submission

8/16/18

This was the week.  Monday, August 13 was Tor’s deadline for novella submissions.  Followers of this blog know I’ve worked most of the summer on combining three of my unpublished stories into a single novella.  This involved expanding the third such story from a flash fiction piece to a significantly lengthier piece to meet Tor’s minimum length requirement of 20,000 words.  While working on this project, I encountered two issues, which I detailed in Post #31 (involving not submitting my best work) and Post #32 (involving a submissions dilemma).

Well, I resolved both issues by not submitting the novella.  This was a difficult decision, but I believe the right one.  Because of the looming deadline, I sent the finished novella to my beta readers with not much turnaround time.  Two managed to get through the 21,100 words, and both had the same comment—the ending didn’t resolve anything.  In other words, it wasn’t an ending at all.

The interesting part is, I had the same critique.  Often, I need a beta reader to point out a flaw in a work.  This time, I knew the flaw going in.  In order to meet the minimum word count, I had added a scene beyond the ending of the original third story.  I like the added scene, but it opened up an entirely new avenue of the story, which I then didn’t explore.  I was rushing to finish the story, so I’d have time to edit it and send it out to my beta readers.  So the story has no proper ending; it just stops, and my beta readers were left unsatisfied. If they felt that way, there’s no way the editors at Tor would accept it.

That’s when I decided not to submit the novella.  I already had qualms about not submitting my best work, and my beta readers’ comments only solidified those qualms.  This is my longest work to date, and I want to do it right.  I want to have the best chance at cracking the pinnacle of sci-fi publishing.

So, I have a new plan.  Initially, I’ll chop off the first of the three stories.  As I expanded the end of the novella, I realized the first part no longer fit.  The story had morphed into something different.  With the first story separated from its sequels, I’ll start submitting that story to markets again as a stand alone piece.

Then, I’ll continue to take the novella wherever the last scene leads.  I haven’t figured out what that entails yet, but I’m excited to find out.  Once I’ve written a proper ending, I’ll see if my beta readers agree.  Hopefully, Tor or another market will be open at that time for novella submissions because mine will be ready to head out the door.

Let me know in the comments if you’ve ever purposely failed at a writing goal because you knew it was the better way to proceed.

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Post #31 – Not Submitting Your Best Work

7/26/18

Have you ever submitted something that was not your best work? Maybe you were in a rush to meet a submission deadline. Maybe you knew a piece wasn’t working, but you didn’t want to spend the time to fix it. Or you didn’t know how to fix it then and didn’t want to put it aside for too long. Maybe you needed to meet a word count minimum and added unnecessary fluff to a piece to reach it. Or the opposite is true – you wanted to meet a word count maximum and cut prose vital to the piece.

I’m likely guilty of most of those.  I’ve rushed stories out the door before they were ready to meet a submission deadline.  I’ve cut words to meet the maximum word count for a writing contest.  I’ve sent a story out I knew needed its exposition rewritten to avoid the dreaded info dump.

I soon may be guilty of sending out a story that is not my best because I’m attempting to meet a word count minimum. As mentioned in Post #28 and #29, I’m working on a novella for a Tor call for submissions. The minimum word count is 20,000. I don’t have any one story that length. I did have three interrelated stories totally about 11,000. The last of the three was a flash fiction piece of only 1000 words. I decided to combine the three and flesh that last story out in the hopes of adding another 9,000 words to meet Tor’s minimum requirement.

I succeeded. The first draft of that fleshed out story came to 9,800 words. I’m currently editing the entire piece, and so far have only added, not subtracted, words. I expect the final version to be in the 21,000-22,000 range.

Here’s the kicker. When going back through the piece, I don’t think it’s my best work. I think the piece is better without the first of the three stories included. However, if I cut that part out, it eliminates 3,500 words, putting me under the word minimum.

What should I do? I could cut the first part and try to add a scene somewhere else to make up the difference. Trouble is I don’t have anything in mind, and the deadline is looming.

I could put off submitting, giving me time to devise further scenes, and hope Tor has another call for novellas in the future. Tor already stopped accepting short stories, so I wonder how much longer it will have calls for novellas.

Or I could submit what I have. I’ve submitted the three stories independently to various markets, all of which sent rejections. I’m not overly optimistic Tor will accept the combined work either. If it doesn’t, I may continue to submit the first part as a stand-alone story and the next two parts as a single story. Given the length of the latter, the available markets will be few. However, as I edit the combined piece, I’ve realized it’s not that bad. I think it will find a home somewhere, even if it’s not my best work.

Let me know in the comments if you’ve submitted something that wasn’t your best work.

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Post #30 – Writer’s Guilt

7/19/18

A recent post on The Writer’s Path discussed the guilt the author felt when carving out time for writing.  The thinking was guilt arose because the time used to write was time not spent with family and friends and therefore was selfish.

I have the opposite problem. I feel guilty when I don’t write. The truth is I have plenty of excuses not to write. Writing is not my day job. Well, I actually spend the majority of my day job writing, but emails and memos and revising contracts isn’t the fun type of writing. So the day job gets in the way, and then life gets in the way. That’s how it goes. I accept I have responsibilities that often take precedence over my writing, but I still feel guilty about it.

Like any guilt, it eats at me until I do something about it. For traditional guilt, that’s usually making amends in some manner. For my writer’s guilt, the only way for me to get over it is to write something.

In the past, I’ve said I try to do at least one writing related activity a day. If that’s not actually writing, it’s adding to my spreadsheet of submission markets, or submitting a rejected story to the next market, or editing a finished story, or reading about the craft of writing. When I’m feeling the writer’s guilt, these tasks only take the edge off. The fix still has to come from writing.

The odd thing is I wasn’t always like this. I didn’t seriously focus on writing until about this time last year. Before that, I never experienced writer’s guilt. If I gave up writing, which I have no intention to, would the guilt fade or would it continue to build? Let’s hope I don’t have to find out.

Let me know in the comments whether you’ve experienced writer’s guilt and in what form.

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Post #25 – Spaces

6/14/18

How many spaces should follow the end of a sentence, one or two? I grew up using, and continue to use, two spaces. I’ve read several articles claiming one space now is the norm. The are two arguments for this.

First, we, as a society, have gotten away from using monospaced fonts. When every character takes up the same amount of space, including a period, like in a monospaced font, it’s easier to differentiate between two sentences with two spaces at the end. Most print does not use monospaced formats any more.

The second argument states people read most content online now in shorter bursts, so one way to save space (no pun intended) is to eliminate a space after each sentence. Supposedly, the formatting is better online when there’s only one space.

It’s true monospaced fonts are not the norm in the writing I see every day, and I know nothing about online formatting. Still, I still don’t buy it. For starters, many of the submission guidelines I read want a story to be in a monospaced format like Courier. If that is a requirement, then it follows two spaces to end a sentence should be required.

Not even that argument addresses the main reason, at least for me, to use two spaces. That is to eliminate confusion. It doesn’t happen often, but what if a sentence ends in an acronym with periods? With only one space after that sentence, a reader won’t know a new sentence started. The more immediate reaction is there is a typo. For example:

“The regulation finally was passed by the members of the E.U. When the matter first appeared, the initial response was appeasement.”

Putting aside the passive voice, which is prevalent in everyday writing, my initial reaction would be the capitalized “w” is a typo. A reader doesn’t know otherwise until finishing the sentence. By then the reader is confused, and the flow of the story is broken.

Most submission guidelines and the standard manuscript formats cited therein say it doesn’t matter whether one or two spaces separate sentences. However, I know of one Australian market’s guidelines requiring one space. I’m planning to test Word’s find and replace function the learn if it can remove a space after each sentence. Since I’m a two spacer, all my manuscripts don’t comply, and I don’t plan to take the time to remove those spaces for this one market.

Because I want to deny I’m getting older and out of touch, I’ve experimented with training myself to use only one space when typing these blog entries. (You may have noticed.) It hasn’t gone well. I regularly must go back through an entry and make the number of spaces consistent, usually using the number of spaces most prevalent. Not to discount the wise sage Yoda, but it’s hard to unlearn what you have learned.

Now there is scientific proof that two spaces are better than one! According to renowned (or not) Washington Post Magazine humor (or slightly funny) columnist Gene Weingarten, a Skidmore College experiment found two spaces after a sentence enhances clarity and makes reading easier and faster.  That’s enough for me.

Let me know your thoughts on the great space debate.

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